Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): A Specialised Mindfulness Approach

In this blog I have been discussing different approaches to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation that are self-initiated and self-directed in the main.  Some of the approaches to mindfulness discussed entailed the involvement of a teacher or mentor to guide the participant through various forms of meditation.

One such approach is provided by the Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training conducted online by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach.  Even in this course, led by teachers and mentors, there is ample scope for participants to pick and choose what types of meditations and mindfulness practices they will focus on – the choices are not individually focused or directed.

What is different about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT as the name suggests is an approach that provides therapists with a structured approach to mindfulness development for their clients.  This approach is therapist-led with a defined sequence of exercises designed to enable clients to move from the entrapment of destructive thinking to taking effective action guided by their values (committed action).  Colleagues vouch for the fact that ACT often achieves the desired results in therapeutic situations.

ACT aims to enable clients to experience a full, rich and meaningful life that is built on internal and external awareness.  The approach actively discourages ineffective avoidance strategies and encourages acceptance of pain as a natural part of a life that is lived fully.    Just as mindfulness trainers are exhorted to deepen their mindfulness practice, so too ACT therapists are encouraged to practise the ACT approach and exercises to be able to act more consciously and effectively in therapy sessions.

The ACT approach to mindfulness

Mindfulness in the context of ACT is defined by Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple, in terms of the quality of paying attention:

Mindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness and curiosity.

In this definition, mindfulness is explained in terms of three key elements – awareness through paying attention, an open attitude and flexible attention enabling a narrow or wider focus or a focus on the internal or the external.

ACT incorporates six core processes as part of its therapeutic approach:

  1. Being here now – consciously focusing on the here-and-now, including our inner and outer worlds.  Fundamentally, it is about being present in the moment, rather than lost in thought.
  2. Watch what you are thinking – this involves standing back from your thoughts and observing them in a detached way. It means not entertaining them and being caught up in them as if they are reality.  Mindfulness expert, Kabat-Zinn suggests that we view our thoughts as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting.  He provides the liberating idea that “we are not our thoughts” nor should we be captured by the “narratives” in our head.   In ACT, the process of observing our thinking is called “cognitive diffusion”.
  3. Accepting and being open to painfulness – Russ Harris describes this process as “making room for painful feelings, sensations, urges, and emotions”.  ACT provides exercises to develop this acceptance.  In our mindfulness discussions, we have offered mindfulness practices such as forgiveness meditation to address this pain and suffering.
  4. Observing yourself – ACT encourages awareness through getting in touch with the “observing self” rather than the “thinking self”.   Russ Harris describes the former as “the aspect of us that is aware of whatever we’re thinking, feeling, sensing or doing in any moment”.  Mindfulness practitioners encourage meditation practices like somatic meditation to develop this awareness.
  5. Knowing what matters – getting in touch with the way we want to be in the world (our values).  Values guide behaviour, give meaning to our lives and facilitate decision making.  Consciousness about our values can enable us to lead our lives with energy and vitality and provide mindful leadership for others.
  6. Doing what it takes – this involves doing what it takes, despite pain and discomfort, to live out our values in daily life (described as “committed action” in ACT).  It requires congruence between our words and actions and a readiness to commit to “valued living”.

ACT is a therapeutic approach that aims to help clients grow in mindfulness in order to lead a life that is richer and more meaningful, while reducing the impact of harmful thoughts and narratives and pain-avoidance.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Mindfulness for University Students

In an earlier post, I discussed mindfulness for school children and explained the ground-breaking work of Goldie Hawn in providing training in mindful awareness and brain science to hundreds of thousands of teachers and children.

In this post, I want to focus on mindfulness for university students and highlight the mindfulness resources that are now increasingly available in universities throughout Australia.

The challenges confronting university students

University students face many challenges that can upset their balance and equanimity and contribute to distress.  Overseas students studying in Australia, for example, may have the challenge of mastering a new language, developing new friends and overcoming the sense of isolation and loneliness.   The process of integration and “finding their place” is compounded by cultural differences associated with norms that impact behavioural expectations generally, as well as in tutorials and lectures.

University students might experience performance stress resulting from assessment requirements such as assignments, projects and exams – often occurring across more than one subject simultaneously.  Sometimes, this performance stress and related anxiety is self-imposed through the desire to achieve a certain minimum GPA to gain entry to an Honours or Master’s course or program.  Other times, the performance stress is generated by the expectations of students’ parents, employer or relatives.  Peers, too, can add to the pressure when they are quick to point out any shortfall in assessment results or make unfavourable comparisons.

University students may experience exclusion from the “in-group” on the grounds of race, gender, sexual preference, dress standards or another discriminating basis.  Students at live-in university colleges may find it hard to fit into the prevailing college culture and norms.  They might even be excluded on the grounds of failing to form an intimate relationship within the college community.  The recent Human Rights Commission report into sexual harassment and sexual assaults in universities in Australia gave a challenging insight into the prevalence of, and devastating impact of, sexual abuse experienced by many university students.

Relationship breakups are a common experience for university students through the pressure of study and assignment commitments, differing expectations and values and the unusual circumstances of university life.  These relationship break-ups can lead to emotional turmoil and distress.  Relationship problems and other stressors can be exacerbated by financial difficulties.

The onset of assessment deadlines can result in panic attacks, nervousness, anxiety and add stressors to relationships that are already stressful.  The level of stress experienced by university students in Australis was highlighted by the report of a recent research project.  The research, conducted jointly by Headspace and the National Union of Students, surveyed 2,600 Australian tertiary education students.  The report disclosed a very alarming level of anxiety among the TAFE and university students surveyed – “35 per cent experiencing self-harm or suicidal thoughts in the past 12 months”.

Mindfulness Resources in Universities

Universities have started to realise the impact of multiple stressors on students’ ability to concentrate and perform academically and to sustain commitment to their courses (drop-out rates have been increasing).

Most universities now, especially through their counselling services, have established a suite of mindfulness resources for their students.  They promote these on the grounds that they will increase concentration, clarity and focus; reduce stress; enhance physical and mental health;  improve quality of life and relationships; and help to develop positive attitudes and happiness.

RMIT, for example, provides a series of six conversations incorporating introductions, audios and exercise worksheets.  The conversations are based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which involves a core message – “accept what is out of your personal control, and commit to action that improves and enriches your life”.   The RMIT ACT Conversations cover the following topics:

  1. Language creates conflict
  2. Action & experience versus thought and emotion
  3. Acceptance, willingness and inclusion
  4. Mindfulness and being present
  5. Your values and direction
  6. Committed action

In line with many mindfulness trainers and practitoners, RMIT stresses the critical role of the exercises and mindfulness practice.   A local resource that reinforces RMIT’s ACT approach is the very readable, humorously illustrated and practice-oriented workbook, The Happiness Trap Pocketbook, produced by Dr. Russ Harris and Bev Aisbett.

James Cook University provides a Relaxation, Meditation and Mindfulness PDF with links to Smiling Mind Mindfulness Meditation, free meditation resources and classes, 6 mindfulness exercises to try, quick relaxation techniques and exercises.

Links to other free mindfulness resources designed for university students include the following:

Additionally, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) through its Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) has the following free resources:

There are numerous resources for university students to grow in mindfulness and improve the quality of their university life, enhance their close relationships and achieve the level of academic performance they are capable of.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of youzuowei1230 on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.